Do you find yourself yawning frequently during the day? If you have small children, perhaps you occasionally nap when they do to catch up on sleep lost at night. A long commute, especially in the dark, can be difficult if you have not had enough sleep – your eyes may begin to close and you may feel drowsy. This is the quick way to an accident.
A recent survey of women in the United States revealed that 46% experience sleep problems every night, and 67% don’t have a good night’s sleep a few nights during the week.. Just an hour of sleep lost every night for weeks or months can stimulate changes in the brain and body that lead to decreased concentration, lowered immune function, and an off-balance endocrine system. Most of us know full well how much we want more sleep, but do we realize fully how much we need it?
Sleep is, quite simply, a life or death matter. Animal studies have dramatically illustrated the effects of sleep deprivation. Rats who normally live 2-3 years will die in 5 weeks if deprived of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, and in 3 weeks if deprived of sleep entirely. They also develop lowered body temperature and skin lesions. This may indicate that the immune system is impaired.
In human beings, cognitive functions are highly influenced by sleep. Lack of sleep leads to drowsiness and impaired concentration. If the pattern continues, hallucinations and drastic mood swings will begin. Have you ever seen colored lines appearing when you move your eyes after several days with too little sleep? The lines are an early form of hallucination, and indicate the need to catch up on sleep as soon as possible. Accidents of all types are more likely to occur when you are behind on sleep, or if your sleep quality is poor.
Many people have experienced “jet lag” as a result of traveling across time zones. It generally takes several days to reset the body’s clock, so those who travel frequently may have a clock that is consistently confused. Similarly, if you perform shift work or work nights, your schedule is in conflict with environmental cues such as the location of the sun. Shift workers are at greater risk of heart problems, digestive disturbance, and emotional and mental problems, all of which may be related to their sleeping patterns, according to the National Institutes of Health. Most workplace accidents occur during the night shift.
What should you do if insomnia prevents you from getting enough sleep? First, try practicing good “sleep hygiene.” This includes having a bedtime routine, going to bed and getting up at consistent times, avoiding caffeine or alcohol 3 hours before bedtime, and pursuing a relaxing activity during the last hour before bed. Sleeping medications, including over-the-counter preparations, should be considered a last resort because of the deleterious affects they can have on the quality of sleep. For example, the popular sleeping pill Ambien increases the incidence of parasomnias such as sleep walking, sleep talking, sleep eating, and even more bizarre activities such as driving while asleep. Benzodiazepines such as Flurazepam can also cause these complex sleep-related behaviors which can be highly dangerous. In addition, benzodiazepines are controlled substances due to their addictive potential.
Look for more information about sleep and your health in my next article.